Kanpur, Agra, Delhi
Dras (-60 deg C, Jan, 2005)
I still remember. It was the probably the hottest and most humid day of 2003. I was taking photographs of an old mosque near Gardenreach, Calcutta in mid-April. I was free from any professional commitment, just left my first job, Alstom, after serving six years. I was inefficiently negotiating in the portico of a very old, yet 'Khandani' house with the hot backplate of my Bronica ETR Si Pro Medium Format SLR system to put an Ilford FP4 120 classic black N white film. Two of my dehydrated assistants were also looking for some shelter.
"Hello, please come inside"….. I looked - a call from an old fair dignified debonair lady. Actually the mosque we were capturing belongs to their family, decedents of Nawab Wazed Ali Shah of Awadh or Lukhnow. The inside of the house was delicately organized with heritage furniture though inadequacy of wealth was gracefully surfacing from all corners. The super curious person inside me was loading the lady with tons of queries, but she was humble enough to quench the knowledge thirst with best of her ability. After speaking for a while she understood that these guys are just drained. She prepared a "Sharbat" for us, served in a big glass made with crafted white stone. My body temperature came down drastically, and again I was full of energy. With best of my turbocharged overconfidence also, I could not ask her the recipe with fear of refusal. Certain things are better unknown.
In the same evening I was sharing this amazing story with a few friends at one of the favorite Park Street restaurants, Olypub. Any low-key humble discussion between two Bengalis normally turns towards a fiery debate, and this was not an exception. The topic was whether an external herbal drink is more efficient in cooling the body from inside during summer or there are better things to enhance body temperature during extreme cold. Decision was difficult to arrive at, and it was again proven that intoxication is directly proportional to stubbornness.
"I was almost dying and a soup with some ants saved me in Tawang"……..uttered Annie. Tawtaanggg…. suddenly all discussions went on hibernation. Tawang is even beautiful than Switzerland, said Takla… though he was yet to go out of Calcutta…… (there are many "Taklas", but this Takla is an electrical engineer works for Infosys)
Tawang, the name attracted me, and Tawang was explored in October, 2003. We started on 15th Oct and returned on all souls day, 2nd Nov, 2003. We took one Ford Escort (those who remember the heavy car, 5km/lt) and one Toyota Qualis.
Five years later, I was trying to strum my old GB&A guitar at Dhrubo's place. Due to regular no practice, I was finding my fingers are softer and the strings are rustier, as a result, I suddenly turned my attention from playing guitar to hearing the discussion. My friends are planning another road trip from Calcutta to Gurudongmar (North Sikkim)….. we started on 12th December, 2009 and returned on 23rd. This we took a 2007 Scorpio.
Having explored east most Himalayan Range from two different terrains, the idea of exploring Ladakh from Calcutta started playing in my mind. Finding equally irresponsible other idiots was not that a very big problem for me…
I resigned from my earlier job on 1st July, 2011, and the date of release was fixed as 14th August.
Destination… Ladakh By car. - Departure from Kolkata 14 August , 2011. Return to Kolkata 29th August, 2011.
Three idiots in this story are Indranil Biswas, better known as Indro to us at DKS, Debasish Singh Roy …Bappa and myself. We, the idiotrio set off with the beast…Indro's Scorpio.. a 2003 model with a 2.6 litre AVL turbo diesel under the hood, 2 Bridgestone Dueler highway terrain tire (tyre) in the front and 2 Yokohama Jeolander all terrain tires at the rear. And would also like to mention we had with us three Canon pro body and 5 lenses supported with Manfrotto tri pod and monopod.
AVL, or Anstalt für Verbrennungskraftmaschinen List, is an Austrian-based automotive consulting firm as well as an independent research institute. It is the largest privately owned company for the development of powertrain systems with internal combustion engines (ICEs) as well as instrumentation and test systems and also produces electric powertrains. Mahinda & Mahindra, while launching Scorpio, started procuring the engine from AVL. At present the supplied engine with Scorpio is 2.2 Lt however, we decided to take that car just because of its sheer power and better tires. Also, while driving to such places, I am still more comfortable with old fashioned engines. In this car, you don't get good fuel economy, but that was not our purpose.
DUELER tires combine the high-level traction and toughness that is required for full-fledged 4WD vehicles. At the same time, it provides superior driving performance, comfort, and reliability to a wide variety of vehicles including pickups, SUVs (sport-utility vehicles), CUVs (cross-utility vehicles). The essence of Bridgestone's tire design technology which receives worldwide recognition has been channeled into DUELER tire brand. It provides even greater driving pleasure for various high-performance 4WD vehicles. We were aware that the road condition in HP (Himachal Pradesh) will be very bad, and in many places, we will have to drive through 2 feet mud, we are choosy about our tires.
The Geolandar A/T-S is Yokohama's On-/Off-Road All-Terrain tire developed for jeep, pickup truck and SUV drivers who want tires that combine a bold off-road attitude with a capable on-road aptitude. Geolandar A/T-S tires are designed to deliver long mileage and promote even wear while providing year-round traction, even in snow.
The Geolandar A/T-S uses a silica-enhanced tread compound molded into a symmetric design that combines sculpted shoulder blocks, rounded-edge intermediate blocks and staggered center blocks to blend off-road traction with on-road control. Dual interlocking pyramid sips and multi-stepped grooves on the tread blocks maintain block rigidity to enhance wear and increase the tire's biting edges to provide traction in loose dirt and gravel as well as on wet and wintry road surfaces. Aggressive sidewall protectors are strategically located near the tire's shoulders to increase loose-surface bite while they help fight off sidewall cuts and abrasions from rocks and stumps. The tire's internal structure includes twin steel belts reinforced by spirally wound nylon on top of polyester body plies. (Sorry, can't help, I was an auto engineer, and for some time heading the Nano project in Singur)
The seeds of adventure to Ladakh were sown in Indro's dream when he bought his Scorpio way back in 2003. It took shape in 2010 while discussing the possibility of the trip over an evening drink at DKS. But the plans had to be shelved due to the massive mud slides in August 2010.
In 2011, another friend of us, Goutam Sen agreed to a trip to Bangladesh with Bappa & me, in mid-August, but that had to be cancelled at the last moment due to Goutam's business commitments. However, we are now planning for this next year. That should be a short trip of 4/5 days, with excellent food.
When Bangladesh plan was shelved, we two proposed Indro about a journey to Ladakh, and he agreed in no time. We had hardly 10 to 12 days to make our plans, meeting only twice or thrice leaving each to our own experience, wisdom and capabilities. Routes were chalked out subject to changes keeping weather and other situations in mind.
The route: Calcutta – Durgapur – Asansole – Varanasi - Allahabad – Kanpur – Agra – Delhi – Karnal – Jalandhar – Pathankot – Patnitop – Srinagar – Drass – Kargil – Leh – Keylong – Manali – Faridabad – Varanasi – Calcutta (we stayed in places in BOLD at night)
Those who are well travelled can understand we decided to stick to NH2 and NH1, i.e. basic GT road, made by Sher Shah Suri. Actually, there are other easier and shorter roads, but almost all were water logged during august flood in north India. My plan was to take NH22 and NH24 and avoid Agra, but Meerut was in bad shape due to rain. So finally we decided to go through the above mentioned road.
Day 1 – Kolkata to Allahabad, 878 km
We left on the 14th of Aug, planning to hit Benaras at the end of the day. Indro superseded his driving capabilities, crossing Panagarh with ease and reached Benaras around 5.30pm. Having sufficient time on hand we took off for Allahabad. We reached Allahabad at 7.30pm. In between we stopped in Durgapur for our breakfast at Indro's sister's place. It was too much, but we enjoyed. Luchi, Alur chokha, and Rasogolla, you don't need anything else. We started from Golf Garden at 7 AM, with a plan to reach Durgapur by 9:30. We did so, but had to drive very very fast due exceptionally bad condition of Kona express highway, which connects Calcutta with Delhi and Bombay Road, i.e. NH 2 & NH 6 through Vidyasagar Setu or Second Hoogly Bridge.
I find there is a problem in Scorpio 2003 model, especially when one is driving @120+. In ideal case, after crossing 60 kmph, the steering should become hard for safer driving, but that was not the case with this car. In fact for few cars, the servo motors starts opposing steering movement above 80 kmph, which is very good mechanism. We have taken this issue with Mahindra, and hopefully something will be done.
Day 2 – Allahabad to Karnal, 825 km, 1703 travelled
Our target was to reach Chandigarh by evening. The progress was good till we reached Agra where we met with our first hurdle and got delayed by 3hrs due to Raksha Bandhan mela on the agra-mathura highway. Apparently this jam happens once a year and we were unfortunate enough to get caught in it. After overcoming the jam and upon reaching Delhi at around 7.30pm, we were doubtful of reaching Chandigarh by 9:30pm.
This is worth to mention the way we have crossed the city of Kanpur. It is a city, which is very slow moving, and polluted. However, this time we are just amazed – we crossed the entire city length of 70 km within 35 min with the help of an elevated corridor or flyover. Calcuttans – knock knock - Think of reaching Madhyamgram within 1 PM after starting from Joka at 12:25 PM for your dream trip to North Bengal !!
After crossing Delhi through Kashmiri gate, our car was stopped with armed police, and I was on the driver's seat then.
Police – Good evening Sir, Kahase areheho?
Me – Kolkatta
P – Idhar keya chahiye?
Me – Ladakh jarahahu, Kashmir hoke, esi liye, q?
Police was silent for some time, then said
P – Aoupen your mouth, and do hah hah !
I did so
P – ek minit, bara sub aayega, upto test deni hai, daruwala test…
Friends are tensed, as our car was full of bottles. Bara sahib came with the machine.
P – Good evening Sir, Aupen you mouth, taks to myself..
I started talking blab blab…
P – Sir, soary, kuch nehi hai, machine lagane se kuch nehi milega, aap jao.. good night…
We were being ambitious but ultimately aborted the idea of reaching Chandigarh & halted at Karnal, utterly disappointed and tired after the setback. Later we learnt that it was a big benefit. The road from Chandigarh to Hosiarpur is water logged.
Day 3 – Karnal to Patnitop, 478 km, 2178 km
We started around 7 AM, and started negotiating traffic on GT road or NH1. The road was a good one, but now, they are changing it from 4 lanes to 6 lanes, and diversion is there in every 200 meters. Still we were managing to maintain an average speed of 50. After crossing Ludhiana and Khanna, we decided to stick to the same road and take a right turn from Jalandhar. There is a shorter and better route between Khanna and Pathankot, but we were not so sure about the surface. The road from Jalandhar to Pathankot was astounding. While driving be careful, because you may miss the right turn from Jalandhar, which needs to be taken by taking left road and take right under the flyover. Remember, any road in Punjab is good and safe to drive. We reached Patnitop around 7 PM. Surprisingly Patnitop was very cold.
Patnitop or Patni Top, is a hill top tourist location in Udhampur district, in Jammu and Kashmir, India, on the National Highway 1A, on the way from Udhampur to Srinagar, 112 km from Jammu. Situated on a plateau in the Shiwalik belt of the Himalayas, Patnitop sits at an altitude of 2024 metres. The river Chenab flows in close proximity to this location. We did not go through Jammu, as there is another much shorter route to reach Patnitop.
Origin of the name 'Patnitop' is a distortion of the original name of Patan Da Talab meaning "Pond of the Princess". In olden times a pond existed in the meadows and the princess often used to have her bath there. Part of the pond still exists near the youth hostel. It may be that the British had difficulties recording an English spelling of an Indian name correctly in their revenue records. Over the years the name changed from "Patan Da Talab" to Patnitop
Those who wanted to take this route and interested in history and anthropology, I have some advice. Sher Shah built a lot of "saraikhana" and they still exists in some condition on the right side of the road when going towards Lahore. Also, you can still find some milestones, in place which are more than 600 years old. Do spend some time and pay your tribute to that man, who first implemented GST in the world and reconditioned GT road.
Day4 – Patnitop to Srinagar, 294 km, 2972 km
Our photographic session actually started after reaching Patnitop. Landscapes, people and environment were changing. Roads were to our liking and we made our way into the Kashmir valley through Jawahar tunnel which happens to be 2.8 kilometers long onto Srinagar.
The thought of seeing Srinagar & Dal Lake (which none of us had visited before) was inviting us. We reached Srinagar around 3pm. Due to off season we managed a high end boathouse at 1/3rd the rate and enjoyed our stay in upmarket style. We satiated our hunger with Kashmiri cuisine. There are a few good places in Srinagar to have food. We settled on Rice, Mutton Rogan Josh and Mutton Yakhni.
For those, who are passionate about food can speak to me on these dishes, and I can speak for days. Mutton Yakhni is a Health Red Meat Food, made of sliced fresh lean lamb shoulders, cloves, ground fennel seeds, ginger powder, ground cumin seeds, bay leaves, thick yogurt, crushed cardamom pods, sour cream, ghee, minced onion, finely chopped fresh ginger, saffron and salt. The key is cooking mutton over low heat at a less atmospheric pressure. So, in Calcutta, you cannot cook it to the taste. Try north Bengal.
Since that was the time of ramzan, in the evening I went to a local mosque to observe the Iftaar. I did all the rituals needed to be done by any Muslim to enter a mosque. I was greeted well.
Day 5 – in Srinagar
The following morning we visited the wholesale floating vegetable market, which in itself was an unique experience. Boatmen with their vegetables and other wares were doing brisk business & were also socializing under the early morning sun at 5 o clock in the morning….the market lasts till 6 30. A scene of serenity and calm was experienced. Overall the serenity and the beauty of the lake and its surroundings were mesmerizing. It changed colours and moods as the day progressed. We saw children going to school in the morning on their boats / people selling their wares from one boathouse to the other and people carrying on with their daily chores… all floating on the lake, Dal lake seems to be their life.
Our Day was occupied with photo sessions of the mosques and local sightseeing in and around the city and the Dal Lake. There are three major mosques in Srinagar one should not miss. Jamia masjid, Pathri masjid and Hazratbal masjid..
Jamia Masjid - is situated at Nowhatta, in the middle of the old city. An important mosque in Srinagar, it was built by Sultan Sikandar in 1400 AD. Later, the son of Sultan Sikandar, Zain-ul-Abidin got the mosque extended. The attractions of the Jamia Masjid of Srinagar, Kashmir include beautiful Indo-Saracenic architecture, a magnificent courtyard and 370 wooden pillars. Another feature of the mosque is the peace and tranquility inside it, standing out against the hustle of the old bazaars around it. Thousands of Muslims assemble at the mosque every Friday to offer their prayers. Jamia Masjid of Srinagar has been subject to much destruction till date. Thrice this magnanimous mosque was ruined by fire but was restored after every disaster. The last restoration work was carried out under the reign of Maharaja Pratap Singh. Still today this mosque stands tall like the pride of Srinagar, holding within itself rich stories from the past and calling all Muslims to pray five times a day
The Hazratbal Shrine - is a Muslim shrine in Srinagar. It contains a relic believed by many Muslims of Kashmir to be a hair of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The name of the shrine comes from the Arabic word Hazrat, meaning holy or majestic, and the Kashmiri word bal, (bal is a corrupted form of Sanskrit Vala which means an enclosure) meaning place. The shrine is situated on the left bank of the Dal Lake, Srinagar and is considered to be Kashmir's holiest Muslim shrine. The Moi-e-Muqqadas (the sacred hair) of Mohammed is believed to be preserved here. The shrine is known by many names including Hazratbal, Assar-e-Sharief, Madinat-us-Sani, or simply Dargah Sharif. One is not allowed to take photograph inside the mosque, so be careful. Also, this mosque is under heavy military guard.
Pathar Masjid – This is also in the old city, made of monolithic yellow structure. Tourists across globes are not much aware about this place, but it is a must see for the students of structural engineering. How both the tension and compression of structure is taken care of by design and stone is something to think and wonder. There is no bar in shooting in this mosque, but do not use a tripod or monopod. This is also probably the oldest mosque of Srinagar, and dates back to pre-sultan era. I am working to get more information on this mosque.
The day ended with me enticing the owner of the boathouse that I would be preparing mutton curry, in Bengali Style. I won't say much here, but those who tasted it said …….
Anyway, our daily meal rate was Rs. 500/- per person per meal at house boat, and after this gesture, the 'malik' of the boat made food almost free for us. The whole experience was for all of us an enjoyable one.
Day 6 – Srinagar to Kargil, 202 km, 2794 km (including 120 km in Srinagar)
This was an astounding journey, and we stopped in so many places. We started around 8 AM, and started moving at a low pace. After crossing some 50 km, we found the road is closed due to landslide. We asked people, and decided to take a very different and steep route, normally only used by military and experienced caravans. Once you start, you cannot stop, and if you had to do so, then again go to the base and start again. Remember driving in reverse gear is not easy and not recommended for even experienced driver. We discussed, and took this calculated challenge. A lot of Indian and foreign people wished us luck.
Once we were up, saw a small flat place and we stopped to see the rest. And man!! in 345 seconds we climbed almost 1200 feet. People waved, and we start again. We saw two caravans with mountain goats, sheep, mountain horses, wild asses, and trained dogs. The group was managed my 20 adults and 15 kids. There were also infants of just 9 months, riding over horses. They claimed to be on fast for two days and distributed our biscuits and chocolates.
After four hours we passed by the Drass River besides the Tiger hill top and Tololing top… the river Drass flowing into Pakistan after joining the Suri River. The LOC was just a Km on the other side of the mountains. Seeing the peaks reminded us of our soldiers capturing them during the Indo-Pak war in the recent past. Drass also recorded the second lowest temperature in the world at -60 deg C on 16th January, 2005. Those who are interested in trekking, Dras is a convenient base for a 3-day long trek to the Suru valley across the sub-range separating the two valleys. This trek passes through some of the most beautiful upland villages and flower sprinkled meadows on both sides of the 4500m Umbala pass, which is along the way. The trek to the holy cave of Amarnath (in neighbouring Kashmir) starts from Minamarg below Zojila, takes three days and involves crossing a pass at 5200m. Dras also offers numerous shorter treks and hikes to the upland villages. Both Drass and Kargil are dry towns, and consumption of alcohol is prohibited here. Even smoking on the road in Drass is prohibited. So…………….. carry your own, smell free, odor free… temp can go dowooon..
Day 7 – Kargil to Leh, 230 km, 3024 km
Next day we took off for Leh,…which we had to reach by 3pm as the DC's office would closed by 4pm…We needed the order to get the inner line permit for going to Pangong Lake and Nubra Valley. Inspite of reaching late we were helped by the local authorities to get the permits as we were their… "Meheman
The following day we had to acclimatize ourselves as Leh is 11500 ft above sea level. Local sightseeing and experiencing local food was our prime aim. We stuffed ourselves with steaming momo's to teemawk and topping them with thick lassi's. Photographic session continued throughout…
I will not say much here about Leh, as it is quite an explored place. My only advice is, do not make Leh just a place for night stay, but explore the old city in detail. DO NOT TAKE ANY GUIDE.
Day 8 – Base at Kargil, visiting Pangong lake, 596 km, 3690
We started around 6 AM, so that we can spend a good time in the lake. The road was a mix one, but again, enormous beauty. We passed Chang La, the 3rd highest memorable pass driven by us. We were above the tree line so…. vegetation was nil and rugged mountains of…green, red, brown, black and yellow were greeting us every now and then and the streams flowing by the roadside….Natural beauty at its best.
Ultimately we caught sight of a speck of blue water body peeping through the mountains. As we preceded the vast pangong lake was coming into view. 134 km long….40% belongs to India and 60% to China. The colour of the water.. though deep blue… was changing with time as chameleon… as the sunlight was playing hide & seek through the clouds and the mountain tops.
Due to the light and shade… the water was turning into hues of red, turquoise blue, green and transparent white…A painter's delight. The scenario also changed with the ducks and yaks in the foreground. The reflections of the clouds were playing illusions with our minds… pretty soon the photo's taken by us would transport you to our dream trip. We were all ecstatic. Considering the fact that we will have to drive back… we left Pangong … with a satiated mind.
I think, we made a mistake of not staying there. The lake under moonlight should be awesome. Try taking some pictures with very long exposures, and you will get stars moving.
We reached Leh, and went to Imran's place for having lassi. In Leh, you get outstanding kababs, made by the road side, and it is must have.
Day 9 – Base at Kargil, visiting Nubra Valley, 332 km, 4032 km
Our next destination was Nubra Valley via Khardungla 18380 ft. the highest motorable pass. We started exploring each curves very seductively and gently and went all out on the straights.
Upon reaching a sand terrain on the valley via a stretch where a glacier rests we reached the place of the Bactrian (double humped) camels. They looked well fed and groomed for our photo session. Reflection of the mountains on the puddles was a treat to the eyes with black and brown mountains covering the valley 360".
Journey back was tiring after seeing heaven on earth and its wonders. Mountains always spring surprises.
Day 9 – Leh to Kaylong, 360 km, 4382 km
Our next destination was Manali via Kelong a sleepy hill station. We reached Kelong crossing Taglangla…17 thousand five hundred 96 ft… the 2nd highest motorable pass on the planet… The road was not so good, but the scenic beauty was awesome.
Day 10 – Kaylong to Manali, 118 km, 4500 km
We had to cross Rotang pass and were informed about the bad road conditions and weather. That was an understatement. Rotang proved to be an acid test, covering a distance of 16km covered with clouds and visibility 5 mts with rain and 2 & a half ft of slush combined with boulders hitting our undercarriage, we covered the distance in 3 hrs with our hearts lodged in our throats. Inching and sliding our way we reached Manali and heaved a sigh of relief.
Day 11, 12, 13 & 14 – Manali, Faridabad, Varanasi & Calcutta, total 6800 km
Manali was for us to rest and enjoy our difficult mission. Driving through three highest motorable passes we felt on top of the world. Loaded with apples, dry fruits, cheese we set off for Benaras halting at Faridabad. On our way to Faridabad we crossed 3km long aut tunnel on kulu manali highway beside beas river.
At Benaras the ghats were brimming with water.
After covering 10 states, Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, UP, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu Kashmir and Uttarkhand and driving a distance 6800 Km, we successfully completed a journey which was a challenge, aspiration and dream over few pegs of whiskey & rum at DKS.
Enjoy the fond memories through our eyes.